After seeing Only God Forgives, I envisioned director Nicolas Winding Refn (also of Drive, Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and others) as a brilliant but misanthropic interior designer, who created spaces for humans too flawed to ever truly appreciate them. That was just the visual I had. He’s clearly a man who cares deeply about aesthetics, and especially about dynamic images, the kind that deliver that visceral, exploitation splatter.
Fitting then, that his latest project is a book of posters that treats vintage exploitation imagery as high art, worthy of display and preservation. The Act Of Seeing is a massive coffee-table book featuring poster art collected and curated by Refn, with historical notes by exploitation film expert Allan Jones. Published by Fab Press, Winding will be in Austin this week for the official Act of Seeing book launch at Mondo Gallery this Friday, and signing autographs at a few Fantastic Fest screenings though the weekend.
The posters came from a massive collection of originals acquired by Refn, which ended up costing him $100,000 to turn into a book. “The whole idea was, I wanted to make the most expensive poster book ever produced, consisting of posters from films no one has ever heard of,” Refn says.
Having seen the book, it’s easy to believe he succeeded. The pages are about 13″ by 12,” and it weighs at least 5 pounds. You could definitely kill someone with it.
I’d heard from friends that Refn could be a tough interview, which I could see being true, insofar as he doesn’t play “yes-and” to make your questions seem better than they are (and I can assure you, as a guy who’s been writing about movies for a long time, most of our questions aren’t very good). The flip side is that he isn’t a waffler. He rarely stumbles or contradicts himself, and generally seems like he offers the genuine, direct answer. If he’s an intimidating interview, he’s a transcriber’s dream. I talked to him this week via Skype about his book, spending part of his childhood in the old, dangerous New York, the Ramones vs. The Eagles and more.
So tell me about why you wanted to make a book about movie posters?
I had purchased a collection of 1,000 posters not knowing really what I was going to do with it. It was kind of spur of the moment decision, and once they came to the house I was more like, “What the hell am I going to do with this?” But going through it, I felt it was like going through a time machine to a period that I was not even born in, but a period that is very romanticized nowadays. The heyday of exploitation films. I felt like in a way, this is historical artifact. And that’s what this needs to be, it needs to be a book. It’s like an art book about cinema history.
And where did you buy the collection of posters from?
There was a writer called Jimmy McDonough who had worked on Time Square in the 60’s and 70s and had been one of the co-creators of a magazine called– a fanzine I think they’re called – called Sleazoid Express which was the first fanzine to write about Times Square. So he had gathered a huge collection of stuff of that period and he was like one day, “Hey, do you want to buy it?” I was like, “Not really.” He said, “it’s the motherlode.” I go, “Okay you got me” and I got it not really knowing what I was getting myself into.
And then how did the book work? Did you choose the posters and then Allan Horn sort of wrote a blurb about the movies?
It was Allan Jones.
That’s alright. Allan Horn’s a better name, actually. Basically, I went to a publisher in the U.K. called FAB Press, which is a small, independent, one-man-army publisher who does quite interesting film books. And I said to him “I want to make the most expensive poster book ever produced.” And he went, “What?” I said, “the most expensive poster book ever produced. You just have to give me the amounts. I’ll pay for it. I will dictate, I’ll have final say on the whole process and Allen Jones will write all the information about the posters.”
That’s how we did it.
Did he tell you what the previous most expensive one was?
No, because I just said “Just give me the highest level. It doesn’t even matter what it is. I just need to know that it’s the most expensive version.” It cost me $100,000 to make 4,000 units.
The whole idea, again was, I wanted to make the most expensive poster book ever produced, consisting of posters from films no one has ever heard of.
And they immediately went with your vision?
Hey man, I controlled the money [laughter]. It took about four years.
Just going back and forth and trying to get all the production set up?
No. It was more that it took about a year to a year and a half just for Allan to dig up all the information about the films, and also I kept on changing the posters of what would go in and what wouldn’t go in. But also just gathering practical information because I didn’t want reviews. This was not a review book, it was an art book. I just wanted descriptions, historical facts, about each movie and that turned out to be a real detective job because you basically couldn’t just Google anything. You had to go back to archives like old-school detectives.
That sounds hard. Do you have a favorite poster in the book? Is there one that you think is the most taboo?
Well, I have a personal favorite which is Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. That to me is aesthetically just incredible.
What are your favorite kinds?
I went always by, “Would I hang this on a wall personally?” And then, I would look at it more in terms of, does the poster have a vision? Is there some kind of interpretation behind it? And then third, if it had a great tagline, one of those taglines you couldn’t do nowadays. Those were what I was always looking for. And there were some crazy ones.
That was actually my next question. What was your favorite tagline and what makes a good tagline?
Can you think of one that stands out?
I think there’s one called Obscene House. I can’t remember exactly what it said. But that one has a pretty crazy explanation of what kind of movie it is.
[Actual text from Obscene House:
open window on a private hot house
see ‘fat mamma’ teach the age-old tricks to her bevy of new, anxious young beauties!
AMERICAN FILMS presents OBSCENE HOUSE
in sinner color. adults only]
How much do the movies that the posters represent matter? Is that a consideration or is it just truly just about the aesthetic of the poster?
It’s only about the poster. I’ve only seen 10 movies out of 300 posters in the book.
Did having seen the movie improve your enjoyment of the poster at all?
Well the 10 movies I’d seen before like Night Tide and Queen of Blood, like the more famous ones I know.
Where did you see those?
I always like Curtis Harrinton’s films, which he directed Night Tide and Queen of Blood. I had seen It’s Alive, the Larry Cohen movie. I’ve seen She Monster. Like the few famous ones that were there, which were good to have for recognition because they kind of represent to highest quality of exploitation posters. And then you had these extreme variation of the same thing or just extremely opposite in terms of crudeness and aesthetic.
How many of these could you even see now even if you wanted to?
I don’t know. I would probably say 50 percent may be available. I would guess. Maybe more. But then it’s like I guess some of those exploitation companies that distribute those kind of movies probably have a few around. But it was very, very hard to gather information about them.
Aesthetically, what are some of the poster clichés that you notice from this style and time period?
They’re all promising a lot, of sexual images with violence. And knowing what the film might be, they probably didn’t live up to it. But it was a great promise.
Do you think the fact that most people can watch sex movies in private now, did that kill the market for this kind of sexy B movie?
According to the film historians, they said when video came, people stayed at home. And now with the internet, it’s even harder to get out the door.
Do you think that’s a loss or is it more just about preserving the period for you?
It’s just an evolution. I don’t think it’s a loss. There are still cinemas. There will always be cinemas. It’s just different but it doesn’t mean it’s any worse or any better. It’s just different. I was on a plane from London today. I watched a movie on the plane on my iPad. It looked terrific. That’s a great opportunity. I’ve also gone to cinema and saw something and loved it. It just gives more opportunities and in a way you can say technology has opened more possibilities for people to create. I’m a very big advocate for the virtual revolution.
You moved to New York when you were a young child. Do you remember any of these posters from that time period, or is it more that the posters that remind you of that time?
When I moved to New York I was not allowed to go to Times Square. I wasn’t allowed past 42nd Street. So to me, it became more — like in Pinocchio, he goes to that island, it must have been the greatest place on Earth. So of course, I have my own curiosity and perception, but I never really experienced it.
And do you find yourself seeking out things that were off-limits to you as a child?
Of course. It’s the only way to rebel.
In terms of the detective work, were you able to find the artist that made a lot of these, and do you have favorites?
No. They were mostly done by the distributor, I think, who paid his cousin to do it and then that was that. Some of these movies would open on a Friday and close on a Monday.
Do you envision people that made them after the book comes out will maybe see it and sort of identify themselves?
I think most of these people are dead, which was one of the other reasons for making the book. It’s a long time ago.
So am I correct to assume that you appreciate these B movie posters more than sort of like awards movie posters?
I think it’s interesting that these kinds of posters are the ones that if you go on — like the Internet sites, these are the ones that really go for high-end biddings for a lot of money. It seems that the more generic award movies are of less interest to most people. That I find very interesting.
Do you think that’s a quality inherent to the poster, or is it just more that it’s vintage?
I think it’s a combination of vintage, but also a lot of these posters have a lot of personality because that’s all they had to sell — was personality.
You said one of your criteria was whether you would want to hang it in your house. Do you have any of these hung in your house?
My wife would tear it down and burn it [laughter], so that’s no.
Is it because they’re not family-friendly enough?
She’s like, “I’m not having anything with a woman being whipped on our walls. Okay? We got kids. Stop. Grow up.”
Fair enough [laughter]. Do you think that your enjoyment of these manifests itself in your work at all?
I don’t know. I guess so. I leave that up to experts like you.
Hey, man, I just ask the questions. I mean, you do explore the taboo somewhat, right?
The more extreme the artform, the more interesting it is, in my opinion. It’s like rock ‘n’ roll.
In the sense that it has to be a little bit naughty?
Yes. Who do you want to listen to, The Eagles or The Ramones?
I won’t answer that, but I think the answer is obvious.
I would say The Eagles.
Right, that’s what I thought you were going for. You said you moved to New York when you were 8. How long were you there?
What was that like going there as a child and having had a much different experience up to that point?
It’s the greatest thing in the world. New York in the early ’80’s was like the last great year of New York. It was before crack, AIDs, and recreating the city as it is now, which is still great. It’s probably a lot safer to live, but it’s not as interesting. So I got the last boat out, but it was a great farewell.
Allen Jones, who is a writer based in London who’s an expert on genre movies, especially horror, had actually gone to Times Square in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s because he lived in New York. He’d also ran with the whole punk revolution and so forth. So he has (a) very interesting background and is so knowledgeable about subcultures. And him and I had been friends for many years and I felt that his knowledge but also his willingness to research the book was the perfect match. So I hired him and then I took the project to FAB Press.
Well I think my time with you is just about up. Do you have anything else that you think people should know about the book?
It’s a great Christmas gift.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.